Friday, 24 June 2011

Kitsch and Aesthetic Education III (J. Morreall & J. Loy)

Kitsch as 'Instant Art'

"With the lack of developed taste in our society goes an inability to make subtle discriminations and a tendency to evaluate things by their most obvious features. What sells today are slickness, gaudiness, flashiness, and sentimentality-in general, whatever elicits a quick automatic response from a passive perceiver. We want things to trigger a momentary "Wow!" and then let us go on to something else. We don't want anything that calls for attention to detail, interpretation, analysis, or any reaction other than "I like it." This love of simple passive experiences explains the popularity of not only kitsch but also alcohol, nicotine, cocaine, and our many other drugs.

In films, television, and now video, we like spectacle-people in flashy clothes chasing each other in expensive cars. In our domestic life we seem to value convenience above all-the TV dinner which, if spilled on the nowax vinyl floor, can be wiped up in a second with the superabsorbent paper towel. Where convenience and flashiness converge, we have gadgets, which as a culture we crave. The same person who has kitsch sculpture in the garden may also own a golf cap with a little solar-powered fan in it or a telephone in the shape of a duck that quacks instead of rings.

Kitsch is perfectly suited to most people's passivity, short attention span, and shallow understanding, for it promises them immediate gratification requiring no special background knowledge or activity. It offers itself as instant art.

The fact that kitsch can aim for only a passive response explains why so much of it is sentimental, achieving its effect by evoking simple emotionslove of children, patriotism, religious devotion, and nostalgia-in utterly obvious and predictable ways. A good example here is the use of cuteness in kitsch. Cuteness is a group of features that evolved in mammalian infants as a way of making them attractive to adults. These "releasing stimuli" for nurturant behavior, as ethologists refer to cute features, include a head large in relation to the body, eyes set low in the head, a large protruding forehead, round protruding cheeks, a plump rounded body shape, short thick extremities, soft body surfaces, and clumsy behavior.5 The manufacturers of dolls, children's books, and greeting cards exaggerate all these features to get a positive response from customers. Now to portray a cute child in a painting, for example, is not by tself aesthetically objectionable, but to do so by painting the child's eyes four times the size of real eyes, with three-ounce tears in their corners, is objectionable. For it hits viewers over the head with its message; it tells them just how to react to the painting and
so leaves them with no cognitive steps to go through.

A basic feature of great art, we think, is that it challenges the audience to interpret it and react to it. Within limits, aesthetic value is proportional to the effort needed to process the work cognitively. That's why we prefer works which have subtlety and multiple meanings and which cannot be taken in at a glance. By eliminating these features, kitsch eliminates the potential for aesthetic experience of any worth.

The effortless response kitsch aims for is manifested in kitsch's lack of risk taking and genuine novelty. Kitsch always uses representation, for example, in a straightforward way; there is no questioning of the relation of the representation to what is represented, as there is in so much twentiethcentury at.

Aesthetically, politically, and religiously, kitsch is always conservative. Aesthetically, it looks for images from traditional art that have already become icons, such as the Mona Lisa, the Last Supper, and the Eiffel Tower. It tries to tap their established acceptability and value to get a predictable reaction. In this way, kitsch is the opposite of avant-garde art, which tries to break with tradition and be appreciated in new ways. The political conservatism of kitsch comes out in its celebration of uncritical nationalism and nostalgia for the good old days. The past is seen as understandable, safe, and morally superior; that is why so many kitsch objects are, as the ads say, "antique style," e.g., the smoking stand designed as a miniature colonialstyle, potbelly stove, with an American eagle insignia on it. Religious kitsch, too, tries to tap feelings of satisfaction with tradition rather than, say, feelings of moral outrage at hypocrisy. People who love kitsch want no cognitive challenges and no social or ethical challenges. They want to live in an unambiguous world where each thing has one obvious meaning and is immediately recognizable as either likeable or not likeable.

This lack of an interest in novel and challenging experiences shows up graphically in a pastime that is closely related to kitsch and which supports the sale of many kitsch objects-tourism, travel sold as a commodity. The tour guide takes groups of tourists through "15 cities in 9 days," showing them sights familiar from postcards. They travel with people who speak their language, and the tour guide makes sure they never have to use the language of the countries they're visiting. Their prearranged meals are taken at restaurants that can serve them the kind of food they have at home, and nothing happens that the tour company can't handle for them. Indeed, they are treated much like spoiled children at summer camp. What they are paying for are easy, passive experiences with just a hint of the exotic to them, but not anything really strange and difficult to understand. The roaring mechanical hippos at Disney World are about their limit.

Just as tourists need do nothing but get on and off the bus, eat the food, take the standard photos with their instant cameras, and buy the souvenirs, so kitsch consumers in general do not have to meet any experience halfway- it comes all the way to accommodate itself to them, predigested and ready to be assimilated."

Morreall, John; Loy, Jessica (1989) Kitsch and Aesthetic Education
Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Winter, 1989), pp 67-69.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Discussing Expressionism (E. Bloch)

Vasily Kansinsky - Picture with an Archer 1909
(MoMA, NY)
"There is surely no denying that formalism was the least of the defects of Expressionist art (which must not be confused with Cubism). On the contrary, it suffered far more from a neglect of form, from a plethora of expressions crudely, wildly or chaotically ejaculated; its stigma was amorphousness. It more than made up for this, however, by its closeness to the people, its use of folklore. [...] It is enough, of course, that fake art [kitsch] is itself popular, in the bad sense. The countryman in the 19th century exchanged his painted wardrobe for a factory-made display cabinet, his old brightly-painted glass for coloured print and thought himself at the height of fashion. But it is unlikely that anyone will be misled into confusing these poisoned fruits of capitalism with genuine expressions of the people; they can be shown to have flowered in a very different soil, one with which they will disappear.

Neo-classicism is, however, by no means such a sure antidote to kitsch; nor does it contain an authentically popular element. It is itself much too 'highbrow' and the pedestal on which it stands renders it far too artificial. By contrast, as we have already noted, the Expressionists really did go back to popular art, loved and respected folklore - indeed, so far as painting was concerned, were the first to discover it. [...] The heritage of Expressionism has not yet ceased to exist, because we have not yet even started to consider it."

Bloch, Ernest (1962) 'Discussing Expressionism'
En: Harrison, Charles; Wood, Paul (2003) Art in Theory 1900-2000. Malden: Blackwell. p 532.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Kitsch and Aesthetic Education II (J. Morreall & J. Loy)

Postindustrial Culture

"Today, of course, we are far beyond the Industrial Revolution. The vast majority of workers are now in the service sector, using their hands and eyes to enter data into computers, drive trucks, and put cheeseburgers into paper bags. And because few work with materials such as wood, fabric, and metal, and fewer still do anything artistic, most are unable to appreciate or evaluate things aesthetically, or in many cases even functionally. [...]

The self-deception purveyed by the "craft stores" is bad enough, but most people today don't even get as far as feeling a need to make anything with their hands. Nor do they see the connection between the general lack of such skills in our culture and the prevalence of bad taste. Indeed, they don't see the taste all around them, especially their own, as bad taste. Whatever the advertisers say is in vogue, they simply accept as in good taste. Their choices of home furnishings, for example, do not spring from any knowledge of how such things are made, nor even from any personal set of preferences. The furnishings in their homes are mere purchases dictated by advertising. Their "taste" comes from magazine articles and catalogs or, if they have more money, from a decorator. When next year new items, styles, and colors are declared in vogue, they are only too happy to replace the current contents of their home. Indeed, if their supply of money permits, they may buy a whole new house.

Most people today don't see planned obsolescence as a marketing gimmick; they embrace it, for it gives them a chance to make new purchases, and a good part of their identity lies in the act of purchasing. The bumper sticker "Born to Shop" and the Bloomingdale's motto for sales "Shop Till You Drop" are only partly ironic. For many people who make nothing themselves, shopping represents at least some connection to the world of material things and-perhaps a greater boon-some structure to their daily lives. They can shape their identities, too, of course, by their association with what they buy, the Rolex watch, the Calvin Klein jeans, the BMW.

The lack of taste so prevalent today results not only from people's lack of skills in making things, but also from their lack of skills in any of the performing arts. Consider music, which used to be something that ordinary people did-they played instruments, they sang, they danced. In the last half-century music has become less an activity and more a commodity to be passively consumed. Manufacturers and advertisers know that they can make more money by selling us records, tapes, compact disks, concert tickets, nd all the T-shirts and other paraphernalia that go along with today's music business than by selling us musical instruments and sheet music. And so that's what they sell us. Instead of getting together to play music and sing, we go to a concert to hear someone else play and sing, or worse, we clip the miniature tape player to our belts, the earphones to our heads, and we listen individually. The producers of popular music, and mass entertainment generally, of course, have a vested interest in a public that cannot play music or sing and has no fixed standards or personal taste; that is just the kind of malleable people who will buy whatever they are told to buy."

Morreall, John & Loy, Jessica (1989) Kitsch and Aesthetic Education
Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Winter, 1989), pp 66-67.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Into the Future: Tourism, Language and Art (P. Wollen)

Church of Pomata, Puno (Peru)
Since Champfleury [Histoire de l'imagerie populaire, 1869], at least, this discursive circulation has been the acknowledged or unacknowledged constant of modern art. It is important to stress that this circulation has always been a two-way process, and yet the two contrary flows have been customarily treated in very different ways. On the one hand, the flow from low to high and from periphery to core has been discussed in terms of appropriation and innovation, while the opposite flow has been seen as vulgarization and its end product has been dismissed as kitsch. In this perspective, the argument against tourist art simply recapitulates the argument against kitsch, seen now in terms of global mass consumption rather than of the effects of mass production within the core. Again, the flow from core to periphery and its appropriation by artists on the periphery is nothing new. The rich nineteenth-century tradition of Haida soapstone carving developed directly because of the new market of sailors and travellers, who began to visit the Northwest Coast for trade or tourism. At the same time, Qajar painting in Iran developed as a complex synthesis of traditional Persian with imported Frankish forms. Spanish baroque was appropriated by indigenous artists in Mexico [and Peru], and increasingly complex forms emerged (as we can see, for instance, in the work of Frida Kahlo and, more recently, artists on both sides of the Mexican-United States frontier). Indeed this new baroque once again is beginning to redefine Americanness, in a complex composite of differential times and cultures.

As the world economy becomes increasingly globalized and core and periphery are redistributed across old boundaries, this process can only accelerate and become more elaborate. The old barriers between 'Western' art and 'Third World' art (once known, symptomatically, as 'primitive' art) will dissolve even further - in both directions. Thus artists as diverse as Jean-Michel Basquiat or Audrey Flack or Francisco Clemente or Cheri Samba can be seen not in simple terms of identity and difference but as part of a dynamic system of aesthetic circulation. Modernism is being succeeded not by totalizing Western postmodernism but by a hybrid new aesthetic in which the new corporate forms of communication and display will be constantly confronted by new vernacular forms of invention and expression. Creativity always comes from beneath, it always finds an unexpected and indirect path forward and it always makes use of what it can scavenge by night."

Wollen, Peter (1993) Raiding the Icebox. Reflections on Twentieth Century Culture. London: Verso.
En: Harrison, Charles; Wood, Paul (2003) Art in Theory 1900-2000. Malden: Blackwell.

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Kitsch and Aesthetic Education (J. Morreall & J. Loy)

The Origin of Kitsch

"The term "kitsch," like the phenomenon, is modern. Coming into use in the 1860s among Munich artists and dealers, for whom it meant cheap artistic stuff, the term was in international use by the turn of the century. Several sources have been suggested for the word, among them the German kitschen, meaning to cheapen or to make do, and verkitschen, meaning to switch-sell. Today the word is applied far beyond painting and sculpture to furniture and interior design, to landscaping and television programs.

Perhaps the most often cited characteristic of kitsch is that it is in bad taste, but that is not enough to make something kitsch. There must also be an element of display. Kitsch objects call attention to themselves and their owners, who think of them as artlike and stylish, as endowing them, in Curtis Brown's words, "with an air of richness, elegance, or sophistication." (1)

Most scholars reckon kitsch to be less than two centuries old, although a few, citing Hellenic miniatures and medieval devotional pictures, have suggested that there was kitsch in mass cultures of the distant past. But even if we admit these few early examples, it is clear that kitsch was not a widespread phenomenon until the Industrial Revolution. Before modern times there were painters and sculptors with little talent, but their work was not kitsch. Nor were works of folk art, peasant art, and primitive art. Compared to works in the high European traditions, some of these items may have been simpleminded, even knick-knacks, but they lacked the pretentiousness of kitsch. The people who bought kitsch had at least a little familiarity with fine art and were looking for something equivalent to it, though not something involving the education and expense required by fine-art connoisseurship. These people and the objects they sought came together in the new manufacturing-commercial culture that followed the Industrial Revolution.
Before manufacturing, only the wealthy and aristocratic had the means to be well educated, cultured, and intellectual and so to participate in the world of the fine arts. Most people were kept busy with the simple necessities of life and had neither the education, time, money, nor interest to patronize the fine arts. What art they had was folk art and grew largely out of their craft traditions. (Indeed, "folk art" is still often used to mean the crafts.) With the Industrial Revolution, however, thousands of people were drawn into the cities to work in the new factories or to sell the products of the factories. There they did not get an education in fine art, but they did learn one of its features, a social rather than aesthetic feature, the use of fine art by the rich to mark their wealth and status.

When factory workers and members of the middle class had a little extra income, they often wanted to buy things to decorate their homes as well as to give them a little status among their neighbors. The folk art traditions of their ancestors had largely been lost, and they did not have the money, time, or education for art patronage. But while they could not afford real fine art, they could afford mass-produced copies of fine art and other artlike objects-they could afford kitsch.

The lower classes bought kitsch in emulation of the rich. While the folk art of their grandparents had been made by "the folk" themselves, kitsch was designed by the upper classes to sell to them. It came from above. (2)

There were two ways in which the new industrial and commercial culture made kitsch possible. First, the new factories could mass-produce artlike items at prices the lower and middle classes could afford. And being able to afford kitsch was the only requirement for owning it. No involvement in the art world was needed-kitsch owners did not have to know artists, learn about their techniques and reputations, or patronize the arts. They didn't need to deal with artists at all; they bought the stuff from retailers. While it was not possible to be a mere art consumer, at least before the modern age, being a consumer only of kitsch was the norm.

But it was not only by mass-producing artlike objects that the new culture made kitsch possible, it was also by producing the people who would find these objects appealing, people who knew little about fine art, who had not developed aesthetic sensitivity, but who wanted nonetheless to decorate their homes and show off with artlike objects. These people were the aesthetically deprived lower class and a good proportion of the middle class."

1. Curtis Brown, Star-Spangled Kitsch (New York: Universe Books, 1975), p. 9.
2. Dwight MacDonald, "A Theory of Mass Culture," in Mass Culture: The Popular Arts in America, ed. Bernard Rosenberg and David M. White (Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1957), p. 60.

Morreall, John & Loy, Jessica (1989) Kitsch and Aesthetic Education
Journal of Aesthetic Education, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Winter, 1989), pp 63-65
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